“Dancing Arabs” indulges in a peculiar kind of late ‘80s/early ‘90s nostalgia: a fond wistfulness for a time in the Middle East when Jews and Arabs mostly despised each other, but actual casualties from terrorism or reprisals were few… friendships across the racial/religious divide were more common… and the dream that a West Bank boy and Israeli girl could date only seemed 99 percent impossible. As quaint longings for a more innocent era go, this beats getting misty over Roxette.
The coming-of-age film had its American premiere in Telluride after bowing at the Jerusalem Film Festival, in the city where it was largely shot. Its loosely-based-on-a-true-story narrative concerns Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom) being sent off by his proud Arab parents to attend Jerusalem’s finest school; that his ex-activist dad dislikes Jews as much as the next guy isn’t even a factor. In study hall, he falls hard for Naomi (Danielle Kitzis), and the two of them make such a sexy cross-Semitic couple that maybe even a Hamas leader would wish they’d have lots of beautiful ecumenical babies.
This is not to be, of course, although thankfully Palestinian-born writer Sayed Kashua (adapting his own semi-autobiographical novel) and Israeli director Eran Riklis never get half as melodramatic as you’d expect in tearing these young lovers apart. (And as a matter of fact, Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” does appear on the soundtrack.) “Dancing Arabs” is shocking in its lack of shocks —no wayward explosions, no draconian military or militant crackdowns, no partisan friends or parents feeling betrayed to the point of screaming fits. Films about this particular divide don’t get any kinder or gentler, but there’s a knowing sweetness to “Dancing Arabs” that doesn’t come off as particularly naïve or divorced from reality, at least taking some of the false hopes of the period into account.
Eventually the romance you’re expecting to dominate the third act plays second fiddle to another border-crossing relationship, the friendship between Eyad and his alt-rock-loving, muscular-dystrophy-afflicted Israeli pal Yonatan (Michael Moshonov). Yonaton’s mom, Edna (Yael Abecassis), takes such an up-close-and-personal interest in her son’s new Arab friend that there are a couple of moments where it almost seems she’s about lean in and make a move on the teenager, but this film doesn’t traffic in that variety of transgression. Presumably she’s just enjoying having an able-bodied honorary second son who slightly resembles her own, a physical similarity that results in another series of plot developments you might expect to be played more tragically or sensationally than they do. The final twist strikes a lovely, if highly unlikely, note of bittersweet irony.
It goes without saying that this Star of David-crossed drama is likely to get a lot more screenings on the Israeli side of the border, where there may be greater numbers of progressives eager to embrace a slickly made and laugh-filled —but not unsoulful— cinematic reconciliation wish. You couldn’t begrudge anyone who lives in moment-to-moment fear of missiles for thinking the conflict is no dancing matter. But if we can get wistful for the Milli Vanilli/Rick Astley era, maybe it’s not too big a stretch to get nostalgic for the Sharon/Arafat epoch, and whatever puppy loves might have blossomed therein. [B+]